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For a company president, Superchunk front man Mac McCaughan starts work late. It's 11 a.m. in North Carolina by the time he slides into the Chapel Hill offices of his label, Merge, for an interview. McCaughan sounds relaxed and amiable on the phone, and with good reason. Besides recently releasing one of Superchunk's best recordings, The Laughter Guns EP, his solo project Portastatic's new album is finally poised to hit the shelves.
The Nature of Sap is the most comprehensive Portastatic to date. It feels like one organized, whole work of art, rather than a lot of minipieces strung together--credit the instrumental interludes between songs, which greatly enhance the continuity. Also, this time around, the majority of the album was recorded in an actual studio (although there are four four-track songs recorded at Mac's house) and the sound is noticeably more exotic--the piano dominates the guitar throughout, complemented by organs, drum machines and various wind instruments (Jonathan Marx plays clarinet, saxophone and trumpet on several tracks and Mac's younger brother drums on three songs). The result is a multilayered opus of pop precocity.
Sap's opener is a jazzy, near-cocktail/lounge track, "You Know Where to Find Me," followed by the first intermission, "A Lovely Nile," which conveys a walkabout through Egypt. All the segues are impeccable, and the album flows with a smoothness rarely found on '90s indie albums. "Spying on the Spys" is a gem. A different version was released last month on a seven-inch to tease the album, but the addition of percussion and clarinet expand the song to a sprawling near-epic. The pinnacle of Sap is "Landed," a brooding attempt to spin pessimism into optimism ("that's not where we crashed, that is where we landed, lucky to be stranded") that evokes the most emotion of any track.
For a guy who plays with one of the best punk bands of the '90s, Mac has an affinity for pop genius that formulaic hacks like Madonna can only fantasize. How he has time to record and perform as Portastatic while simultaneously running Merge (with S-chunk bassist Laura Ballance) and playing with Superchunk is a mystery. Last month, Revolver asked Mac for a few clues:
Revolver: With three concurrent projects, do you ever get the feeling you have a real job?
Mac McCaughan: Portastatic definitely still feels like a hobby. When you're writing songs and recording, and playing live, it still feels like something that I'm doing because I enjoy it. The times it feels like a job are when you're on tour driving for 10 hours, waiting around at clubs, staying in Motel 6 every night for six weeks, that kinda stuff.
R: What was the impetus behind Portastatic?
MM: I'd been recording stuff on a four-track since I was in high school, so it didn't really just strike me all of a sudden. But in terms of actually putting it out, this guy Tom Sharpling has a label called 18 Wheeler Records in New Jersey, and he put out the first Portastatic seven-inch. He just called and said, "Why don't I release some of these songs you did on your four-track, 'cause I wanna start a label." So I told him to just pick the three he wanted. It was fine with me, 'cause I didn't have any plans for them. Then it became more of a real thing from there.
R: Superchunk played the VANISH [Voters Against Incumbent Senator Helms] benefit show back in the election season. How did that go?
MM: Well, the weather was great, some great local bands like Archers of Loaf, Pipe, and Polvo played, and there was a great turnout.
R: So, generally, you'd say it went great.
MM: Yeah. It was set up to raise funds for some really cool local causes, not just for Helms' opponent Harvey Gant, although a little went to him, but causes like Clean Up Congress, some environmental group, and North Carolina Mobilization '96, a gay and lesbian group. One of the most interesting causes was MAJIC--Mothers Against Jesse in Congress. It was started by these two women whose sons both died of AIDS. Helms is very outspoken about his dislike for homosexuals, so they started this political group. It's cool 'cause it's a demographic you don't necessarily think of as being politically active--60-year-old women campaigning against a conservative politician.
R: I notice Merge doesn't advertise in some of the bigger 'zines, like Punk Planet and MaximumRockNRoll. I also saw your letter to Request magazine that called Ian MacKaye [of Fugazi, Dischord Records], Corey Rusk [owner of Touch N Go Records] and Steve Albini [Shellac front man, producer extraordinaire] "lazy hacks." Are you getting disillusioned with the whole indie thing?
MM: Did they print that? No, that was a joke 'cause I know those people, and I thought they would think it was funny. I figured that was obvious since I called them lazy, and they're anything but. As far as MRR goes, they sort of deliberately draw lines in terms of who they wanna deal with. We used to advertise and send them stuff to review, but a couple of years ago they decided "we only review things that are hardcore," so we figured what's the point? It's their magazine, so it's perfectly fine, but we're not the ones who are disillusioned.